For those who don't pay too much attention, there exists the idea that B Street Theatre does more or less the same thing each time out.
While not true, particularly in the case of the new production "Looks & Money," which opened Sunday, some of the fault lies with B Street itself. It prefers to label just about everything it does as a comedy, probably because hearty laughs are easier to market than heady thoughtfulness or symbolic absurdity.
Besides, who doesn't like to laugh?
B Street Theatre artistic director Buck Busfield obviously does, even if the joke might seem more privately enjoyed, as in producing a 1955 avant garde gem, "The New Tenant" by the Romanian-born Eugène Ionesco. The crisp one-act comedy comes on the back half of the evening consisting of two unconventional one-act plays. Ionesco lived mainly in France and wrote in French (the translation was written by Donald Watson), though this story takes place somewhere in London.
With the stage bare save a windowsill at one front edge and a wall with two doors at the back, a stunningly festooned gentleman (a masterful Greg Alexander) arrives to inspect his new apartment. His glorious three-piece white suit and matching wide-brimmed hat speak volumes, but he says little. He hardly speaks at all and there's no need because the busybody landlady showing him the room maintains enough jabbering conversation for them both.
Stephanie McVay's wonderfully inane chatterbox at first seems merely oblivious, barreling from topic to topic as if the singsong sound of her voice somehow sustains her. Alexander's quiet gentleman waits for her to stop talking as his eyes slowly survey the room, and his face twitches ever so slightly here and there in a brilliantly restrained bit of silent performance.
But McVay doesn't stop. The more she talks, the more bizarre and disconnected her dialogue becomes. Finally, Alexander is able to pay her off and have his movers (Peter Story and Jason Kuykendall) start to bring in his furniture. While it seems the sketch could end there, it's not nearly over and the madcap resolution has fairly chilling ramifications.
In the night's first presentation, Marius von Mayenburg's less-involving "The Ugly One," a man (Kuykendall) undergoes surgery that changes his appearance, making him incredibly appealing to everyone. The blessing of his newly acquired beauty soon wears off in this slight fable.
Alexander, Story and McVay complete the cast, and Busfield directs both plays with his characteristic quiet wit.
Ionesco, a contemporary of Samuel Beckett and nearly as influential, had a minor Broadway hit with "Rhinoceros" in 1961, a play famous for actor Zero Mostel's portrayal of a man who becomes a beast. Of his work Ionesco wrote, "I believe that the aim of the avant-garde should be to rediscover, not invent, in their purest state, the permanent forms and forgotten ideals of the theater."
The playwright certainly does that with "The New Tenant," creating a spectacle from a simple idea neatly extended to its most ridiculous and frightening conclusion.
LOOKS & MONEY
What: B Street Theatre throws a summer curveball with a pair of absurdist, one-act comedies. "Looks & Money" features "The Ugly One" by Marius von Mayenburg and "The New Tenant" by Eugène Ionesco.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 5.
Where:B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento.
Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org